When Anna Miller purchased 3405 Hamilton St. in 1921, she became one of Powelton’s first homeowners of color. Anna and Thomas E. Miller moved here from South Carolina in 1921 when she was about 66 years old and he was about 71. Their lives had been centered on their choice to live in the South as blacks after the Civil War.
Thomas E. Miller (1849-1938)
Thomas Ezekiel Miller was born in South Carolina in 1849. It is likely that three of his grandparents were white. He was adopted at birth by Richard Miller, a freed slave. He was light enough to have “passed as white” in the North, but he chose to live as a man of color in his native state. When he died in 1938, his obituary in the Journal of Negro History described him as “one of the most useful men of his time.”
When he was a child, the Millers moved to Sumter, S.C. and sent him to a school for free blacks. His mother died when he was 9 years old and he had to go to work as a newspaper boy to support himself. At the end of the Civil War he ended up in New York State. The story about how that came about has been summarized in many confusing ways. The clearest version appears in an interview with him during the 1930s. He explained that
“[he] was placed in charge of delivering the paper to all stations between Charleston and Savannah, Ga. on the Savannah Railroad, and remained in service until 1864, when he was made Assistant Conductor of the railroad. He wore the Confederate uniform, for all public works were owned and operated by the federal [i.e., Confederate] government. In the early part of 1865, the train was captured by the Yankees to the South of Harleyville, and he was placed into prison in the stockade river swamp, at Savannah Georgia, and remained there for two weeks. The few persons [who] survived were moved to the Savannah Hospital, where he also went. When he was released from the hospital, he went to Hilton Head en route to Harts Island, N.Y. with the N. Y. 24th Negro Regiment, and from there to Hudson, N. Y. and returned to Charleston in 1866.”
Before returning to Charleston, Miller studied for nine months at a school in Hudson. He soon returned north to study at Lincoln University where he graduated in 1872. After returning again to South Carolina, he was appointed School Commissioner in Beaufort County. His first important political battle was to get black teachers into the city schools. He was elected the state House of Representative in 1874, 1876, and 1878 and to the state Senate in 1880. While in the legislature, he studied at the Law School of the State University. He graduated with the last class graduated before blacks were barred from attending. He also received law training under P. L. Wiggins, the state solicitor, and Franklin J. Moses, Sr., Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. He was admitted to the bar in 1879.
In 1888, Miller ran for the U.S. House. The election was disputed but he was finally seated by the Republican Congress in September, 1890. He only served for a few weeks before he had to return home to campaign for re-election. Another contested election followed, but this time a Democratic Congress refused to hear his case. In 1895, he was elected to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention along with five other blacks. It was at this convention that the poll tax and literacy tests were introduced which effectively barred blacks from voting.
During the years following the end of Reconstruction, the black population of South Carolina needed leaders with Miller’s legal training and rhetorical skills who would fight for their rights. Miller was constantly reminded of his light complexion. The white press referred to him derisively as “Canary Bird” Miller and some black opponents accused him of merely taking advantage of the opportunities for blacks during Reconstruction. Despite this, he chose to become a champion of the rights of blacks and an outspoken critic of those who used fear to secure white domination of South Carolina. His education and speaking ability made him an especially important asset for the black community. For example, he was the best educated of the black delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1895. However, the valiant defense of black rights made by Miller and others failed to stop the disenfranchisement of blacks.
At the 1895 Constitutional Convention, Miller’s role was to eloquently challenge the notion that blacks were an alien group intent on dominating the state. He reviewed the common history shared by blacks and whites, defended actions of black legislators during Reconstruction, and pointed out that many white legislators relied on black votes for their election. He did not, however, hesitate to speak harsh truths. At one point he challenged the “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War stating:
“The majority of you blame the poor Negro for the humility inflicted upon you during that conflict, but he had nothing to do with it. It was your love of power and your supreme arrogance that brought it upon yourselves. You are too feeble to settle up with the government for that grudge. This hatred has been centered on the Negro and he is the innocent sufferer of your spleen.”
Miller was a strong advocate of universal suffrage. He noted the effects a poll tax would have on poor whites and he was one of a small minority at the convention to vote for woman’s suffrage.
After the end of the Constitutional Convention, Miller turned his sights once again on education. In exchange for promising to leave politics, Miller secured the separation of the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina (now the State College of South Carolina) from Methodist-owned Claflin College. He demanded that “only Southern men or women of the Negro race be on the faculty.” He was appointed the school’s president by the all-white Board of Trustees. The college was poorly funded and for a decade lacked running water, sewers, electricity and central heat. During its early decades, State College was not really a college; most of its students were in primary and second grades. It provided teaching licenses and basic training in agriculture including how to care for cows and make a compost heap. Many black leaders of the time, including Booker T. Washington, believed this kind of education was what was most needed for blacks. However, the Board of Trustees maintained tight control over all aspects of the school including decisions about the curriculum. The College did not grant a real bachelor’s degree until 1925. Miller served as president until 1911 when he was forced to resign following his outspoken opposition to the election of Governor Coleman Blease. Miller’s opposition to Blaise was not surprising given Blaise’s position on the education of blacks. For example, Blaise once stated that the efforts to educate blacks were actually detrimental because “you are ruining a good plow hand and making a half-trained fool.” After resigning, Miller resumed his law practice and looked after other business interests.
Dr. Charles W. Maxwell
Thomas Miller and Anna Hume were married in Charleston, S.C. in 1874. They had nine children, two of whom died young. They moved to Powelton about 1921 (a) with their daughter, Pansy, and her husband, Dr. Charles W. Maxwell. Maxwell was a 1904 graduate of the Medical School at Howard University. He ran his medical practice at 616 S.15th St. and out of his home. At the time, there were few blacks living in Powelton. The first black homeowner in Powelton may have been Bessie G. Johnson, wife of Fields Johnson, who bought 320 N. 31st St. in 1919. In 1920, the numerous other black residents on 31st and 32nd streets were all renters. By 1930, most residents east of 33rd St. were black renters. West of 33rd St. virtually all Powelton residents were white with the exception of a few servants and this remained true throughout the 1930s. (The exceptions were Summer and Winter streets where all of the residents were black in 1940.)
Why did Anna and Thomas Miller choose to leave South Carolina for Philadelphia? Why did they choose Powelton rather than an established black neighborhood as the Maxwells later did? We may never know. The move to Philadelphia may have been precipitated by Pansy and Charles Maxwell. Also, Philadelphia – and particularly Powelton - may have offered a quiet retirement away from the harshness of life in South Carolina after WWI. Thomas Miller wrote several manuscripts based on his experiences in South Carolina politics which he may have written during his years here. (It appears these were never published.)
In the early 1930s, the Millers returned to Charleston where Ann died in 1936. The house in Powelton was inherited jointly by Pansy Maxwell (who had no children) and the five children of Pansy’s sister, Marguerite E. Edwards of Atlantic City, N.J. Pansy and Charles Maxwell moved to S. 15th St. in the late 1930s. He remained a prominent physician in the black community until his death in 1959.
Thomas Miller died in Charleston in 1938. The inscription on his tombstone reads “I served God and all the people, loving the white man not less, but the Negro needed me most.” (Some sources differ on the exact quote.)
(a) Most sources state 1923. However, they purchased the house in 1921. An article in the Philadelphia Tribune on March 1, 1924 stated that: “Ex-Congressman Miller is a celebrated character in Philadelphia, where he has lived for a number of years….”
I generally do not devote so much space in this blog to the lives of individual before they lived in Powelton. The case of Thomas E. Miller is unusual. I have not found a real biography of him nor a full appreciation of his role in South Carolina’s history. The numerous short biographical sketches include many inconsistencies and inaccuracies that are now easily corrected with readily available sources. I hope this brief blog will serve to correct some of these inaccuracies and stimulate more interest in his life. Here are a few of the resources I used for this piece:
Anonymous (1938). "Thomas E. Miller." Journal of Negro History 23(3): 400-402.
Anonymous (1935). Recalls Stirring Incidents in Life of Thomas E. Miller, Veteran of Reconstruction Days. Philadelphia Tribune. Philadelphia Pennsylvania: 5.
Ladson, Augustus (1936-1937).Ex-Congressman Thomas Ezekiel Miller. WPA Federal Writers' Project on African American Life in South Carolina. WPA_K_1_1_065070. Charleston County, University of South Carolina.
Tindall, G. B. (1952). "The Question of Race in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895." Journal of Negro History 37(3): 277-303.